SHANGHAI, CHINA — A curious figure called "Tranquil Dragon" is infiltrating Shanghai's airwaves with calls for democracy in China.
In this land that once branded America as Foreign Enemy No. 1, the Dragon cites Franklin D. Roosevelt and Walter Cronkite as role models. He insists that Communist Party leaders answer questions from people on sensitive issues of the day.
A decade ago, he could have made his appeals only via pirate radio stations, the underground press, or clandestine political parties.
Yet today, Zuo Anlong is the most popular talk-show host on China's east coast. He is among a small but growing band of journalists pushing the limits of official tolerance toward free-wheeling free speech in a vast desert of conservative, state-run media.
The Dragon's daily show, "Citizens and Society," allows some 10 million listeners to call in complaints on anything from unemployment to US-China ties, in a nation where airing of grievances has been taboo for millennia.
It seems amazing enough that Mr. Zuo, whose full name means "Tranquil Dragon on the Left," has not been locked up for encouraging the masses to voice their discontent.
Yet a stranger phenomenon follows Zuo's skyrocketing ratings here: Reform-minded party leaders are clamoring to get on his show to connect with their sometimes disgruntled people.
Zuo has hosted Shanghai's cosmopolitan Mayor Xu Kuangdi on several shows, the governors of six nearby provinces have braved the hot seat of being questioned live by the public, and last month President Clinton joined the program.
Zuo gives the US president high marks for spontaneity and says that Chinese populists of a similar vein are beginning to rely on the press to burnish their image.
"Clinton was very humorous" during an hour-long call-in, Zuo says. "He keeps in touch with the common people."
Yet the radio star adds that China's new reformist Premier Zhu Rongji "is very similar to a Western leader," and many urban Chinese would agree that Zhu's easygoing rapport with the media and the public marks a major turning point.
For decades after the 1949 communist revolution, China's top party leaders, like their imperial predecessors, walled themselves off in tightly guarded compounds. The party molded the masses through a state-run press that allowed no means of feedback, much less dissent.
There are signs that some leaders want to change that image.
"I am a bridge of dialogue between government officials and the people," Zuo says. "In many ways, China is becoming more open and democratic, and Shanghai is at the forefront of that trend."
ZUO adds that he titled his bestselling book "The Voice of Democracy" because his "main aim is to spread propaganda for the cause of democracy" - precisely the reason that students occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989 had also called a makeshift broadcasting station by the same name. Without blinking an eye, Zuo says he had no fears of breaking the law by using the title since "the student leaders did not have a copyright on the name."
Zuo is just one of a new breed of journalists. Pathbreaking newspapers including "Beijing Youth Daily and Southern Weekend are testing the limits on how much they can report on corruption and abuse of power at the local level," says Orville Schell, head of the journalism department at the University of California at Berkeley. Yet reporters who cross the invisible line of the impermissible can find themselves banned from writing or being imprisoned.
In a recent appeal to Beijing, the World Press Freedom Committee commended China's loosened press controls, but called for the release of journalists "and others who have exercised the universal right of self-expression to call for democracy in China." Human rights groups say reporters are among an estimated 2,000 political prisoners whose status has been unchanged by sporadic moves toward more openness.
Jailed reporter Gao Yu, first recipient of UNESCO's world press freedom prize, "is being held under very bad conditions, and with common criminals," says former journalist Dai Qing. Yet Ms. Dai, who has been blacklisted and prevented from publishing in China since urging the government not to use force against Beijing's peaceful protesters in 1989, says the times may be changing.
"Since 1989, the party has become more careful about arresting people just for voicing different political opinions," she says. "Now, China's civil society is growing stronger. That limits the party to some degree, but also gives it a sense of legitimacy that it could not win through the [Communist] military revolution."
Zuo says the government's pullback from wide swaths of social life and increased tolerance for diverse opinions, along with China's integration into a worldwide information network, are fueling a peaceful revolution in the media.
"In the past, central broadcasting propagated the government line and told the people what to think," he says. "My show is like a hot line to the leaders, and now the people can tell the government what to do."